Twenty Gascon young bulls that had been reared either in intensive conditions (INT) (n=10) with early weaning at 3 to 4 months, or in a traditional extensive (EXT) system (n=10) with weaning at 7 months, were subjected to the same conditions during the 145-day finishing period. Production system before the finishing period did not affect conformation, dressing percentage or morphology of the carcass; nevertheless, tissue composition differed somewhat between the two groups. Display had a stronger effect on meat colour than did production system. Percentage of myoglobin was highest in INT (P⩽0.001), although meat texture and sensory quality did not differ between rearing conditions. EXT animals had darker, more yellow fat, a higher percentage of n-3 fatty acids (P⩽0.001), a lower percentage of saturated fatty acids (P⩽0.05) and a lower n-6/n-3 index (P⩽0.001) than did the INT-reared animals. Production system before the fattening period might modify some of the characteristics of commercial beef, especially those associated with fat.